The second album from progressive bluegrass powerhouse quartet, Hawktail, emerges fully formed from measure one. This band has been a long time in the making, after having spent a number of years as the trio Haas Kowert Tice, fiddle player Brittany Haas, bassist Paul Kowert and guitarist Jordan Tice brought in mandolinist Dominic Leslie to form Hawktail, whose debut album as a quartet, Unless, released two years ago. The record was a collection of gorgeously rendered, stunning compositions, but there was a feeling that the writing process predated Leslie’s addition to the band; like he was there solely to free up Tice for more melodic playing.
Thankfully, on their sophomore album, Formations, the band have truly hit their stride, with seven new tunes that feel tailor made for these four musicians, with each bringing experiences from their involvement with numerous contemporary acoustic music projects to form a cohesive style, bespoke to them. From the very first moments of the first track, ‘Annbjørg’, it’s clear that the group have a much clearer sense of what the adaptable roles of each instrument are. The clearly Swedish inspired tune is propelled forward by the alternating rhythmic patterns of the mandolin against unison guitar and bass. The middle section of the tune is where things kick up a notch, setting an incredibly dextrous pizzicato bass solo against a grooving, textured accompaniment from the other three musicians before the mandolin leads them through a frenzied breakdown, back into the tune.
Kowert channels the bowed bass playing of the legendary Edgar Meyer on the harmonically adventurous ‘Last One on the Line’, trading solo lines with Leslie before playing the languid melody in harmony with Haas. Likewise, Tice is the star of the rhythmically dense, ‘Dandelion’, building a solid yet delicate foundation for hauntingly unmoored fiddle improvisation. His guitar work leads the group into a close harmonic section, reminiscent of classical string quartets that gets progressively lively and driving as the piece thunders towards an ultimately quiet and reflective conclusion.
‘Padiddle’, the track which shares a name with the band’s record label, feels the most aesthetically adventurous of the album. This may not appear to be the case on first listen, but the more times you immerse yourself in this visceral, adventure of a tune, the more you’ll pick up on the myriad ways in which the quartet messes with the elements of the tune which feel traditional, whether that be the steady old-time rhythm, or the seemingly uncomplicated harmonic pattern. ‘Padiddle’ is an exercise in how much you can manipulate a formula without warping the tune beyond recognition.
‘The Tobogganist’ and ‘One Hour in Hungary’, of all the tracks on the record, feel the most like traditional fiddle tunes with a lot of Irish and Swedish influence. Both feature bewitching, unison bowing from bass and fiddle as well as a considerable amount of trading of the melody between instruments. ‘One Hour in Hungary’ is particularly impressively arranged, splitting the ensemble into bowed and plucked instruments with the two groups trading roles back and forth, creating a sense of variety and evolution of the relatively simple melody as the track rolls on. It’s a particularly inspired choice of tune with which to end the record as it really sticks in the memory thanks to its triumphant return to the striking ‘A’ section at the track’s conclusion.
It’s taken a long time for Hawktail to truly come together as a cohesive unit. Incorporating Dominic Leslie into Haas Kowert Tice was clearly the right move for the band, but the benefits of that decision didn’t really come to fruition on Unless. With the release of Formation, the quartet finally feel like a single, democratic musical force, reaching a new level of innovation in contemporary American acoustic music. Formation feels like a pub folk session run by four geniuses – initially intimidating but ultimately warm, inviting and truly inspiring. This record is essential for any folky looking for something meaty to sink their teeth into.